The last thing anyone wants to read on this glorious Tuesday is another Oscar retrospective. But I just now thought of it, and it's cool to be fashionably late even to a discussion, right? Don't answer that.
One of my biggest disappointments about the 2010 nominations was seeing Watchmen shut out of anything to do with costume or art design, particularly the former. I'm a fan of Michael Wilkinson's work, and I think he's done an amazing job bringing the outlandish costumes of books such as 300 and Watchmen to life. But while Sandy Powell offended everyone else with her bored win for The Young Victoria, I actually appreciated that she dedicated it to "the costume designers that don't do movies about dead monarchs or glittery musicals" because I thought well, hey, she means men and women like Wilkinson. Because not only do costume designers on, in Powell's words, "the contemporary films and the low budget ones" rarely get enough recognition, the costume designers of sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book movies never do.
And I do mean never. While I wasn't surprised to see Wilkinson shut out, I had this vague idea that the Oscars of the deep dark past had recognized geek genre movies such as Batman or Star Wars, and that all those costumes worshiped by cosplayers and costumers had been admired and rewarded by industry professionals too. Shockingly, that's not the case. The further I dug, the more snubs I uncovered. I even widened my criteria to more mainstream fantasy such as the Harry Potter series. The Oscar gold is very, very scarce.
Only two geek (using the broadest description possible, the kind you'd find on a Barnes & Noble shelf) movies can ever be said to have won Best Costume: Star Wars in 1978 and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004. They stood bravely for their respective franchises. No other Star Wars film was ever nominated for costume design (not even the prequels -- and there's nothing I like in the films but Amidala's dresses) and only 2 out of 3 of the Lord of the Rings films garnered nominations. (Sorry The Two Towers. Rohan just wasn't up to snuff, I guess.)
I plugged every "geek" movie I could think of into IMDB: Blade Runner, Batman Returns, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. No nominations. I even plugged in the ones that might be considered bombs or cult classics, such as Krull, Conan the Barbarian, or Willow, though I held out no hope. Nothing. Four geek movies can safely be said to have been nominated and lost the Oscar: Tron (1983), Dick Tracy (1991), the aforementioned Fellowship, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. And that's by really stretching the criteria of geek, as I don't think there's a lot of people who would consider Harry Potter very ostracizing. Who knows if Dick Tracy really applies either considering the likes of Madonna was all over it's retro coolness.
But I digress into semantics when all you might be thinking "Who cares? It's costumes!" You should care because what is at the heart of every superhero movie? A costumed crimefighter. Superman, Batman, the Green Lantern, the Joker, Iron Man -- these guys are nothing without their suits and secret identities. Every little kid can tell you that.
I have the sneaking suspicion that the Academy considers comic book adaptations too easy when it comes to costuming. Isn't it right there on the page? Don't they just have to make that? Well, as anyone associated with any of the comic movies from 300 to Superman, making that look beautiful and functional is no small task. Costumes that are iconic in 2D can look absolutely ridiculous when rendered onto a real human. Every designer has walked an incredibly fine line in that respect, with some choosing to abandon the iconic looks (the X-Men) or trying to render it in a more feasible way (nearly everyone else). So why isn't that recognized? Is it because the Academy considers the Batsuit more of a prop or a MacGuffin? With the advent of CGI, is Iron Man too much of a digital creation even if they use a real suit for certain scenes? Is his armor considered something closer to an airplane or a motorcycle than a costume? How is it different than chainmail?
Oh, wait. They don't like to nominate chainmail either, especially if it's worn by barbarians, orcs, or Arthurian knights. (That's right, nothing for Excalibur in 1982!) Stormtrooper armor also need not apply. Nor Jedi robes, or Star Trek uniforms because there's no way they take as much creative effort as corsets or real military uniforms. The exaggerated 1940s look of Blade Runner was nothing compared to something like The Aviator or Bugsy. They're just thrown together out of what exists in a warehouse, right? Wrong.
Now, I'm not diminishing the effort it does take to make gangster suits, corsets, and gladiator armor at all. I've studied too much about costumes and historical clothing to ever sneer at any effort put forth by a costume designer. They all start with a blank sheet of paper. But I think it takes a special skill to imagine the clothing of the future, or what an entire race of aliens would wear, or what a hobbit puts on for second breakfast. If you're adapting from something as fervently worshipped as Marvel, DC, J.R.R. Tolkien or Harry Potter, you have to match fan expectations. If you're designing for Star Wars or Blade Runner, you have to anchor it in exoticism and familiarity. You don't have Roman statues or portraits of Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth to base it on.
I think it's unbelievably sad that so many decades of hard work has been so misunderstood by those judging the bits and pieces of cinema, particularly since so many of these costumes have become iconic. Princess Leia's Slave Bikini has its own website, for heaven's sake, but it couldn't score a nomination. Heart Like a Wheel did, though. I imagine the Academy figured the characters were all sporting the same outfits they had in Star Wars (and Han Solo certainly was) and it wasn't worth looking at again. I can forgive that. But not so many others from sci-fi, fantasy, and comic books being dismissed from consideration. Sure, longevity and fandom end up trumping whatever the Academy thought in a given year. We've seen it time and time again with what films go on to be remembered -- The Searchers over Around the World In 80 Days, everything that was up against The Greatest Show On Earth -- and costume design is no exception to that rule. Others might sneer that pop culture cherishes Starfleet uniforms over Elizabethan silhouettes.
But I wish the Academy would wake up and recognize that costumes are a vital part of every film, regardless of time, place, and origin. Rendering Thor's armor is no easier than trying to dress a Maximus Decimus Meridius. In fact, it may be harder, and it's going to be scrutinized far more closely and by a bigger and crueler audience. Gladiator wasn't going to sink or swim based on what Russell Crowe was wearing, but Thor or First Avenger: Captain America could. That alone is reason enough to look a little closer at the stuff of genre, but it's also time that they be recognized as movies of real impact and work. A costume is the same whether it's worn by someone from the pages of history, or the pages of fiction. Why disdain the Comedian and Captain Kirk over the Kings and Queens of England? At least you might reward an excited first timer, and not someone bored with their own hat trick.